After 50 Years, Scientists Still Not Sure How DEET Works

DEET (short for N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is the most widely used insect repellent in the world for a very good reason – it works really, really well! Just a quick spray on exposed skin keeps mosquitoes, flies, fleas, chiggers, and ticks away. Developed by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and patented by the U.S. Army in 1946, millions of people worldwide use DEET to ward off vector-borne diseases. First of all, why would researchers study DEET if it works so well? While DEET is an effective repellent, it doesn’t work against all bugs, it’s corrosive to plastics and there are concerns about its effect on human health.


Structural Formula for N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET).
Courtesy of Wikipedia – Click on the image for a larger version.

How DEET actually works has puzzled scientists for more than 50 years. Scientists long surmised that DEET masks the smell of the host, or jams or corrupts the insect’s senses, interfering with its ability to locate a host. Mosquitoes and other blood-feeding insects find their hosts by body heat, skin odors, carbon dioxide (breath), or visual stimuli.

Amazingly, within a few months this year, scientists from two different labs have come up with competing explanations of how DEET works. In March of 2008, researchers at Rockefeller University in New York, said that DEET jams odorant receptors in insect nervous systems, in effect masking odors that would ordinarily attract the bugs. According to Dr. Leslie B. Vosshall, a researcher who worked on the project, now that they know that DEET targets OR83b co-receptors, they can quickly screen thousands of other compounds in hope of finding one that is even more effective and has fewer disadvantages.

Are you sure, ask researchers at the University of California, Davis? Mosquitoes flee because of their intense dislike for the smell of the chemical repellent and not because DEET jams their sense of smell. In August 2008, in a paper published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they provide a simpler explanation. Mosquitoes, they say, smell DEET directly and avoid it.

Dr. Vosshall, involved in the earlier study, said that her team stood by its work, and that its findings were based on a variety of experiments. So for now, the jury is still out.

Connecting to the National Science Education Standards

These competing explanations on how DEET works provides a perfect example of one aspect of the nature of science – Scientific Claims are Subject to Peer Review and Replication. Researchers in labs across the world work on answering many of the same questions. The results of their work are published in peer reviewed journals so that researchers around the world can examine their data and logic, identify alternative explanations, and replicate observations and experiments. Peer review is an integral part of genuine scientific enterprise and goes on continuously in all areas of science.

The National Science Education Standards in the History and Nature of Science Content Standard G describes what middle school students should understand about this part of the nature of science, including:

It is normal for scientists to differ with one another about the interpretation of the evidence or theory being considered.

Different scientists might publish conflicting experimental results or might draw different conclusions from the same data.

It is part of scientific inquiry to evaluate the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical models, and the explanations proposed by other scientists.

Although scientists may disagree about explanations of phenomena, about interpretations of data, or about the value of rival theories, they do agree that questioning, response to criticism, and open communication are integral to the process of science.

Additional Resources

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Science For All Americans Online: The Nature of Science
Science for All Americans consists of a set of recommendations on what understandings and ways of thinking are essential for all citizens in a world shaped by science and technology.

Household Product Database
List of products that contain DEET.

Chemical Technical Summary for Public Health and Public Safety Professionals
The Department of Health and Human Services provides a summary of all medical cases and research done on DEET.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at

This post was originally written by Kimberly Lightle and published August 26, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/19/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

When Did the Grand Canyon Begin to Form?

South Rim, Grand Canyon. Image courtesy of Kimberly Lightle.

This blog post draws from several news sources —, The New York Times, and Science Friday. All these sources have stories and photos related to a study published March 7, 2008, in Science by researchers Victor Polyak and Carol Hill (free registration is required to view this article). Science Friday features a 15-minute audio clip of an interview with Polyak. The research suggests that the Grand Canyon began forming 17 million years ago. However, for the past 100 years or so, geologists have agreed, based on a robust data corpus, that the Grand Canyon is probably five to six million years old, even though the rock from which it is carved is up to two billion years old. So what have Polyak and Hill done to upset this long-held theory of the Grand Canyon’s age?

To put it simply, they gathered new data and analyzed it using new technology. That is, they gathered rock samples called mammillaries from caves. These mammillaries are associated with ancient water tables and suggest previous levels of the water table. Polyak and Hill then analyzed these samples with improved rock-dating technology involving the radioactive decay of uranium to lead. The Grand Canyon began forming 17 million years ago at the western end in a west to east direction, and at a rather slow rate. Some time later, the east end of the Grand Canyon began forming from east to west, at a much more rapid rate. Eventually the two ends merged and the Colorado River emerged.

However, some scientists suggest Polyak and Hill’s methods and interpretations may be too narrow or incomplete. For example, their assumption that all the mammillaries examined originated in an ancient water table may not be a safe one. One critic noted that springs do occasionally emerge from the canyon walls and they could produce mammillaries as well. Another point of contention deals with the lack of 17-million-year-old sediment, which would be evidence of a 17-million-year-old river. Hill counter-argues that such sediment may not exist because the scale of the hypothesized 17 million-year-old, western river system would not produce sizable amounts of sediment. In addition, river erosion tends to destroy such potential evidence.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson
Estimating the age of the Grand Canyon is related to the History and Nature of Science, Science as Inquiry, and the Earth and Space Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards. With respect to the first two standards, several themes emerge. The researchers proposed using improved laboratory techniques and new data sources to make an estimate of the age of the Grand Canyon. In this way, they demonstrated the idea that science advances with new technologies. Science also seeks disconfirming evidence to existing theories as a means of gaining increased certainty regarding what we know about the natural world. If scientists fail in their attempt to find disconfirming evidence, they have succeeded in strengthening the existing theory. If they find disconfirming evidence of existing theories, then they pave the way to new lines of research, which must be further investigated. Eventually, existing theories may be either supplanted or revised in light of the new evidence, or they may be strengthened should the new evidence turn out to be unreliable or invalid.

The news sources related to this research also provide “air time” for scientists who argue alternate interpretations of Polyak and Hill’s data and who point out that Polyak and Hill may be ignoring some facts that impact their conclusion. These presentations underscore the role of argumentation and evidence based logic in advancing scientific knowledge as well as the social nature of science.

Ask your students if they know how old the Grand Canyon is. Ask them if they imagine someone knows, even if they don’t. From here, the discussion is going to go in one of two directions: (1) If they imagine someone knows, how do students imagine the someone knows how old the Grand Canyon is; what kind of evidence might have been used? Entertain all student contributions and stipulate that the students provide some justification for their response. You may need to do quite a bit of guiding and scaffolding here to lead students to support only evidence-based and logical responses. (2) If students imagine no one really knows, ask why not; what prevents human beings from knowing?

Depending on your students’ background knowledge and context you can relate the discussion to a variety of instructional goals and learning objectives. Do you want to emphasize the nature of science, evidence-based argumentation, and the social aspects of doing science? Then choose excerpts from Science Friday’s interview, which highlight these aspects in the context of real scientists doing real science and devise discussion questions for your students to reflect upon in order to increase their awareness of the nature of science.

Maybe you want to highlight some methods of science like rock dating. Perhaps you can use this opportunity to illustrate how new questions can emerge from gathering evidence intended to answer another question, as is illustrated in the final paragraph of the story.

Or maybe you want to give students practice with science literacy. Put students in small groups and give each group one of the three sources listed in the first paragraph of this blog. Devise two or three open-ended questions for each group to discuss and reach consensus. Have the students jigsaw into new groups and share the consensus of their first group. How does each student now understand the issue of determining the age of the Grand Canyon? How does this issue intersect with the bigger idea of the nature of science?

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published March 14, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 11/16/2011 by Kimberly Lightle.

Newest Issue of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle Highlights the Science of Climate Study

Scientists recording data on Sperry Glacier. Photo courtesy of glaciernps, Flickr.

The just-published issue of the free, online magazine Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle gives K-5 school teachers a unique opportunity to introduce the science behind weather and climate change to young students with engaging lessons and proven reading strategies.

Each issue of the magazine takes its theme from one of the widely accepted principles of the climate sciences. The theme of the September 2011 issue is “We Study Earth’s Climate.”

Designed to integrate science and literacy instruction for educators in K- grade 5 classrooms, this and earlier issues provide background articles on the related science and literacy topics and their connections to the elementary curriculum. Science and literacy lessons to use in the classroom become a part of unit plans for grades K-2 and 3-5 and are aligned with the national standards for science education and English language arts.

An original story, titled  How Do We Study Climate?, gives young listeners and readers chances to use their comprehension skills on informational text. The story is available at two reading levels and in three different formats.  Selected children’s books on climate and weather are highlighted in a bookshelf feature.

Two articles are devoted to teaching young people to evaluate information from web sites and to use video clips from agencies that work with weather satellites, balloons, and buoys to learn about data collection.

Readers are welcome to add their ideas and suggestions on articles by leaving comments. They can also easily share and bookmark content by using the embedded AddThis buttons.

Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and produced on the campus of The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio.  All past issues of the magazine are available from the homepage of the magazine.

Kimberly Lightle, director of digital libraries in OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology, School of Teaching and Learning is the principal investigator of the project as well as a contributing writer. Jessica Fries-Gaither is the project director of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle as well as the award-winning sister publication, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at Post
updated 12/07/2011.